When it comes to equity in STEM, there is one population of students that too often gets overlooked.
Neurodiverse students, namely those with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dysgraphia, dyslexia, and dyscalculia, have historically been left out of the conversation about the access and resources necessary for underserved students to succeed in high school and college math.
The education gap for neurodiverse students is less likely to be studied or acted on, experts say, which does a disservice not only to the students who would directly benefit from more equitable access to higher math, but also to the neurotypical children who are learning alongside them.
About 7.3 million U.S. public school students ages 3 to 21 received special education or related services during the 2021–2022 school year. Neurodiversity was the driving force behind those numbers, with 32 percent receiving services for specific learning disabilities, 12 percent for autism, and 7 percent for developmental delay.
Of the students ages 14 to 21 receiving services, 75 percent graduated with a regular high school diploma, far lower than the average public school graduation rate of 87 percent, according to the most recent data available.
Neurodiverse students also face stereotyping and, often, discrimination about the way their brains work and about their ability to learn and be successful. And this carries from the classroom to the workplace.
Half of leaders and managers admitted that they would not employ a neurodiverse candidate, according to a survey by the Institute of Leadership, with the highest biases being toward people with Tourette syndrome and ADHD.
Nearly a third of managers in certain fields, such as engineering, said they would not feel comfortable hiring people with the math learning disorder dyscalculia. And 53 percent of people with dyscalculia surveyed, along with 60 percent of people with autism surveyed, reported that people in their workplace behave in a way that excludes neurodivergent colleagues, compared to just 29 percent of their neurotypical co-workers.
Change needs to start in the classroom. With the majority of students with disabilities spending 80 percent or more of their time in general education classes, the benefits of teaching accommodations will help neurodiverse students as well as their neurotypical peers find more success with complicated math concepts.
Researchers, education experts and neurodiversity advocates have become increasingly vocal about updating math instruction with neurodiversity in mind, though there is still a need for much more research.
A qualitative study of neurodiverse graduate students in research-heavy STEM programs found that the students lack the same education quality and opportunity as their peers. The students were more likely than their peers to experience mental health issues and burnout, likely from trying to adapt to neurotypical norms to avoid negative perceptions. And they were likely to attempt to mask their neurodivergent traits to avoid stigma.
Researchers from the University of Michigan have been studying potential improvements to college STEM course instruction for students with ADHD.
Other researchers are investigating how to strengthen students’ executive functioning skills through new instructional strategies, tools, and assessments. The EF+Math Program works to solidify executive functioning capabilities to make math more inclusive and accessible to populations of underserved students that also include Black and Latinx students, and those living in poverty. Because many neurodiverse students have limited executive functioning skills, the findings can contribute to strategies for supporting their math learning.
There are also more direct ways to provide more resources to neurodiverse students who haven’t had the benefit of specialized instruction.
In “The neurodiverse mathematics student,” a chapter in the edited 2015 volume Transitions in Undergraduate Mathematics Education, UK math researcher Clare Trott makes the case that colleges and universities can provide equitable access in math class, and benefit all students, with four accommodations:
Temple Grandin, a renowned author, scientist, and animal behaviorist with autism, has also spoken out about how neurodiverse students are falling through the educational cracks.
She advocates a broader approach to math content that is more inclusive of individual ways of thinking and processing information.
“Students need more exposure to the way everyday things work and are made. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the teaching of math, where we persist in a rigid approach that rewards those who ‘get it’ and leaves the rest—including those with the very kinds of minds our economy and our future most desperately need—with a sense of profound failure,” she wrote in The Atlantic last year.
Grandin is especially concerned for students, like her, who need visual images to learn, making certain core subjects such as algebra impenetrable. Yet schools continue to require such courses, often at the expense of topics such as statistics and probability, which lend themselves to visualization and are more relevant for many fields. This interferes with those students' educational progress.
“No two people have the same intelligence, not even identical twins,” Grandin said. “And yet we persist in testing—and teaching—people in the same way. We don’t need Americans to be better at algebra, per se. We need future generations that can build and repair infrastructure, overhaul energy and agriculture, develop robotics and AI. We need kids who grow up with the imagination to invent the solutions to pandemics and climate change. When school fails them, it fails all of us.”
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